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Natalie Portman: I was sexualized as child star

Natalie Portman never fell into the pitfalls many child stars experience in Hollywood, but her career trajectory came with its own set of challenges.

The Oscar-winning actress appeared on Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, and talked about being sexualized at a young age. Portman, now 39, broke out at age 12 in Léon: The Professional and starred in Beautiful Girls two years later. She opened up about the effects of being portrayed as a “Lolita figure” in the press early on and the coping mechanism she used to combat it.

Shepard, who is six years older than the actress, explained on his podcast how he loved Portman growing up, but that he has some complicated feelings about that.

“The premise of Beautiful Girls is [actor] Timothy Hutton gets infected with this cute girl who’s precocious and wiser than her years and there’s something whimsical about it,” Shepard recalled. “There’s some pretty things, and there’s some complicated, dicey things, and now I don’t know that movie gets made. There’s so many layers to it… there were times I was like ‘I shouldn’t be so in love with this girl, but Timothy Hutton is.’”

That’s not a new concept for Portman.

“I was definitely aware of the fact that I was being portrayed — mainly in kind of journalism around when the movies would come out — as this Lolita figure and stuff,” she replied.

The actress, who is releasing a children’s book of gender inclusive fables, has previously touched on the consequences of being a female child actor. In a stirring speech at the 2018 Women’s March, she said the first fan mail she received after The Professional was a rape fantasy a man wrote her.

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“Being sexualized as a child, I think, took away from my own sexuality because it made me afraid,” Portman told Shepard. “It made me feel like the way I can be safe is to be like, ‘I’m conservative, and I’m serious, and you should respect me, and I’m smart and don’t look at me that way.’ Whereas, like, that age — you do have your own sexuality, and you do have your own desire, and you do want to explore things, and you do want to be open, but you don’t feel safe, necessarily, when there’s, like, older men that are interested and you’re like ’No, no no no no no.”

Portman said she built “fortresses” around her to “feel safe.”

“So many people I think had this impression of me that I was, like, super serious, and prude and conservative,” she continued. “I realize I consciously cultivated that because it was ways to make me feel safe. ‘Oh, if someone respects you they’re not going to objectify you.’”

“It worked out, luckily,” the activist added. “I mean, I was safe.”

Shepard noted how her career path was almost opposite of a Disney star who tries to reclaim their sexuality later on.

“It’s totally true and it’s so weird because it’s, like, I was auditioning for all that stuff too and I never got it as a kid. I always got the dark, kind of sexy, young girl role,” Portman laughed, saying she’d try to audition for a cereal commercial “and they’d be like, ‘No way.’”